CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND HORRIBLENESS
Bizarre it may be, but I'm perfectly happy to watch scenes of brutal axe murders and sadistic torture in a horror movie, be it a cheery old slasher or a Saw sequel, yet I'm acutely uncomfortable with scenes of rape and sexual violence. It doesn't feel right in films that are ostensibly entertainments; it feels a step too far in the savagery. And that's my problem with Paul Hyett's The Seasoning House: it may have things to say and awareness to raise about the appalling abuses meted out in war zones, but the second half clearly marks the film as an exploitation movie. Like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left (originals or remakes), it's almost like two movies in one: a grim drama about appalling sexual violence and rape, segueing into a cheerily violent punch-the-air revenge thriller.
Somewhere in the Balkans in 1996, young girls are rounded up and imprisoned in a private brothel catering to the most depraved excesses of the battle-hardened military: they're permanently chained to their beds and kept hooked on heroin, the better to suffer their repeated abuses. Because of a facial blemish, mute Angel (Rosie Day) escapes this fate; instead she works the house, feeding and cleaning the prisoners. But when the men (led by the ever reliable Sean Pertwee) who kidnapped her in the first place and murdered her family show up again expecting to be serviced, Angel fights back, using the crawlspaces and air vents in the crumbling mansion to get past them, kill them off and perhaps escape....
That's the point at which it morphs into a straightforward exploitation thriller, and also the point at which it starts to fall apart. That a terrified, inexperienced slip of a girl is somehow able to outwit a squad of highly trained, heavily armed scumbags seems even more unlikely than the climax of every Friday The 13th film in which the maniac is thwarted by someone smaller, weaker and more scared, especially in what starts out as a seriously intended film with a firm basis in real events rather than a popcorn slasher movie.
The BBFC's 18 certificate for the film states that it "contains strong bloody violence and scenes of sexual violence", and it most certainly lives up to that description. That they go on to point out that the rape scenes have been passed without problem as they are "aversive and unerotic" seems to me to miss the point, though - they may not be intended as erotica, but what are they for? I'm still not convinced, having now seen the film twice, that we need to see them at such length and in such detail; the point is made very clearly and very quickly.
On a technical level, though, The Seasoning House (the opening film at FrightFest 2012) is superbly put together, well played by a convincing cast. The production design is terrific and gives no hint of being shot in Uxbridge rather than on location in the actual Balkans. The second, more popcorn half of the film works better than the grim, oppressive first half (although Pertwee's final fate does rather depend on him being an idiot when he quite plainly isn't). It's not a likeable film, and for a lot of the time it's not an entertaining one either, but it's undeniably well made and pulls off some effectively shocking moments.